The Political Pivot and the Latino Vote


The pivot stands as one of the most dramatic moves possessed by the human body. When a ballet dancer pivots, in an instant he or she takes the audience in a sweeping new direction. When a basketball center pivots successfully, immediately he reverses the flow of the game from offense to defense or visa versa. Whatever the activity, pivots can be their own form of "game breaker." And so it is in politics, and particularly in the 2010 governor's race in California.

As we move from the June primary to the November general election, candidates are pivoting like crazy. Nowhere are these abrupt changes more visible than with the efforts of Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown to shift from the right and left ends of their political parties, respectively, to the center where so many votes await courtship.

For Brown, the need to pivot is not nearly as great as it is for Whitman, chiefly because he coasted through the June primary without a challenge. Brown didn't have to say a thing about any issue and that's exactly what he did.

Whitman hasn't been so fortunate. During the primary campaign, she marched to the edge step by step with fellow candidate Steve Poizner in a battle for the Republican right, the soul of the party and the mainstay of the primary vote turnout. Nowhere did she move more than on the issue of immigration, where she promised to be "tough as nails" on illegal immigrants in the tradition of former Governor Pete Wilson, campaign chair. Wilson, it will be recalled, was the architect of California's Proposition 187, the initiative designed to deny just about every state service and program to illegal immigrants and a craw in the throats of Latino voters. benefiting from Wilson's coat-tail" on immigration served Whitman well in the Republican primary, but now she must wear new political clothing if she hopes to win in November.

Enter the pivot.

As gracefully as possible, Whitman must now blur her earlier statements on illegal immigrants. Why? Because the voters in the middle are not nearly as radical on the immigration issue as those on the far right. These include independents, moderates and the Latino vote--perhaps the largest group that could derail Whitman's campaign.

Now 38% of the state, Latinos are a growing political force. Although they identify with Democrats over Republicans by better than a 3-to-1 ratio (58% to 19%), Latinos tend toward political conservatism on wedge issues such as abortion. Even more important, Latinos made the difference in Gray Davis' 1998 election when he campaigned against Proposition 187. They also made the difference in 2003 when almost half defected to Arnold Schwarzenegger after Davis rejected drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants. Simply put, Latinos can make the difference.

That's where Whitman has to pivot, and carefully. Recognizing that Latinos may be as many as 20 percent of the state's voters in November, she has to break down the block ala Schwarzenegger in 2003. But she can't pivot to the point where she discourages the base, lest she give the most active members of her party a reason to stay home.

Equally important, Whitman can't appear as the double talker where she says one thing one moment and another the next. That would cost credibility.

Clearly, Whitman has some work cut out for her. In between writing checks and making campaign commercials, she may need time to learn a new step.       

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